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Indy Autonomous Challenge Provides Blazing Finish to Lukewarm CES 2022

How safe would you feel in a self-driving car moving at 50 mph? What if we revved up the speed a little, say to about 150 mph? Yes, I’d understand if you’d rather volunteer for space travel.

But the last day of CES 2022, the nation’s largest tech show, made history last week as the Indy Autonomous Challenge, the first-ever head-to-head autonomous-driving Indy-class car competition, came to a thrilling end with the winner safely hitting speeds above 165 mph. Heck, even the driverless pace car hit 95 mph.

The competition, held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, was comprised of teams from schools from around the world vying for a $150,000 top prize. It was meant not just as a race, but also as an autonomous-driving-technology showcase.

Each team used an Indy-class Dallara AV-21 race car retrofitted with sensors and other autonomous driving hardware and controls, according to the Indy Autonomous Challenge, which noted that the Dallara cars had a modified version of the chassis used in the Indy Lights racing series.

All teams had the same car but had to come up with their own control software and make real-time decisions based on feedback from the cars’ multiple RADAR and LIDAR sensors, cameras and GPS devices as the fuel-powered cars sped around the raceway. This made for surprisingly entertaining viewing.

The race, which was streamed live, was marked by multiple crashes, both real ones into walls and virtual ones in software which caused the cars to respond slowly to commands, shut down or not start at all. Even minor manual corrections could result in spinouts and shutdowns.

In the finals each car had to catch up to and pass another car moving at a fixed speed. With each round the speed of the “target” car increased.

Team PoliMOVE, an alliance between Politecnico di Milano of Italy and the University of Alabama, won the grand prize when the TUM Autonomous Motorsport vehicle, controlled by a team from Technische Universität München of Germany, went into a controlled spin shortly after the PoliMOVE car safely passed it at 169 mph.

But the real winners here might be the entire assisted- and autonomous-driving industries as they learn and innovate from the many successes and failures experienced during the race.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge and the real and protype electric vehicles showcased by companies like Sony and BMW provided an uplifting end to CES 2022, which suffered from pandemic-induced low attendance—40,000 compared to 170,000 in the last in-person show in 2020—and missing exhibitors and scaled-down product showcases. Hopefully the success of the Indy Autonomous Challenge—and the end of the Covid-19 pandemic—will help CES get back on the fast track for 2023.

My tech tips appear regularly in Sree's Sunday Note.

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